A Retrospective of the USS Rochambeau
The Marechal Joffre was a transport ship first launched in 1931 from La Ciotat for the French merchant shipping company Messageries Maritimes. She passed into the hands of the Vichy French after the fall of France. For the next two years, she would remain in those hands, doing the work of the Axis’ puppet government that had supplanted the French Republic. She was in the Pacific in December 1941, when the United States entered the War, and later that month, a crew of Navy fliers commandeered her, their efforts bolstered by French sailors who were working to sabotage their Vichy overlords. When she arrived in San Francisco, the US Navy rechristened her the USS Rochambeau.
Rochambeau was, appropriately, a French name: the first Rochambeau – Jean- Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau – served as the commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force that fought alongside General Washington and the colonists during the American Revolution. To honor his contributions at the Battles of Yorktown and the Chesapeake, the United States in Congress Assembled gifted Rochambeau two seized British cannons. It was a moment in time that would resound a century and a half later during the Second World War. Throughout the War, the Americans and the French were unwavering defenders of free-world ideals. Both republics, with the British, sacrificed greatly on freedom’s altar, and as US Army regulars fought alongside French citoyens of the Resistance, the USS Rochambeau continued to sail around the world. Every voyage that she made was a voyage for liberté (liberty), of the sort that French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi had built into the spirit of his Liberty Enlightening the World, better known as the Statue of Liberty, the French gift to all Americans that greeted uncounted and untold freedom- seekers in the New World.
The Fourth of July to Le quatorze juillet, the red-and-white stripes to the red- white-and-blue tricolors: like so many other emblems and celebrations that the French people and the American people share, the USS Rochambeau was a thing of the people. She served them and protected them, doing right by them in their darkest hour. Across the Atlantic, she connected them, two peoples united through generations of revolution and labor toward democracy – toward égalité (equality).
During her time as the Rochambeau, the once-Marechal Joffre transported cargo, then-Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, and casualties of the War, all precious necessities to the fight that bound the two republics, both devoted to preserve a shared vision of society. From Marshal Rochambeau’s march at Yorktown in the American Revolution to General Eisenhower’s liberation of Paris, the echoes are there, heard clearly in Normandy and New York alike, cradles of two bold experiments in self-governance, too many heroes in common to call them anything other than a fraternité (fraternity).
On Bastille Day, we remember all of our brothers and sisters in France, who have seized and defended the ideals that we share and with whom our progenitors have found a bond that transcends any era in history.